AIN'T TECHNOLOGY grand? A few years ago all parents had to worry about was that Johnny couldn't read, Jane couldn't do math and their bedrooms looked like an explosion in the town dump. But now, thanks to the aggressive marketing of personal computers we live with a new fear: Our kids may end up as unemployable simpletons, sleeping in doorways because we didn't teach them BASIC or have them tapping away at IBM clones before they were weaned.
The enormous pressure to buy home computers for children peaked several years ago when millions of parents, frightened by misleading advertising, rushed out to buy silicon talismans -- the now-forgotten Ataris and Commodores hunkering in the dark and dust of hall closets and attics. But while less intense, the question still nags: Should your child have a computer at home? The answer -- regardless of all the new machines and glitzy software -- is still the same: Maybe.
First, let's bury the idea of computer literacy as a compelling reason to buy a PC. The notion may have had some credibility a decade ago when mainframes were tended by priesthoods of number-crunching nerds and the few PCs available were difficult to operate. But these days -- moving down a path blazed by the engaging and innovative Macintosh -- personal computers are rapidly becoming easier to operate (and more fun) than many multi-function VCRs.
Besides, kids see computers as just another gadget. When your average technophobic adult has an initial confrontation with a computer he or she nervously thinks, "I don't know which key to push. I don't want to make a mistake." But children, naturally adventurous and curious, think, "I wonder what will happen if I press this one." And they press it. Kids are instinctively computer literate because they're creative, always willing to play and blissfully unaware that they're making "mistakes" by pressing the "wrong" key.
As for the urgency of teaching a child to program, consider the rapid development of hardware and software and remember the First Law of Kids and Computers (which I just made up): Whatever your child learns to do today on a PC will be called primitive tomorrow. MIT's Seymour Papert -- the inventor of Logo, arguably the premier computer language for children (though it has wider applications) -- thinks children should learn to program because it empowers them, opening the computer up like a toolbox, giving them mastery over the machine's output instead of merely being consumers.
But, Papert, who works with schools in the Boston area, emphasizes that learning to program isn't crucial to a child's future employability. After all, by the time your kids are actually in the workforce many computers will be standard appliances, like telephones, that demand no special skills to operate, certainly not programming.
Another reason for not buying a home computer is the lack of worthwhile software for children. Apples and IBMs can run tens of thousands of programs, but much of the so-called educational material is dreadful -- unimaginative, boring electronic flash cards or dopey stuff kids may find initially entertaining for its novelty and then abandon.
Which points to the main reason for not buying a home computer: They don't do anything by themselves. You can't -- as many parents found out the hard (and expensive) way -- simply drag home a computer and a bushel basket of software and, after setting them up like an altar, expect their presence to magically illuminate your child's mind. Unlike televison, which invites and encourages passive consumption, computers demand active participation.
SOFTWARE doesn't run by itself, so you'll have to spend time (more than you may think) reading manuals, getting the programs to run and working with your child. And when the computer is ready to roll, you'll still have to contend with a child's maddeningly variable attention span. Is it worth spending a thousand dollars and much more for a computer system that your child may only use for minutes a day, and some days not at all?
It may be, but only if you're going to use and experiment with the computer yourself. If you're willing to share and supervise your child's involvement, you may find the machine both a valuable educational supplement and a means of enriching your family life. Working with a computer is something you and your child can do together, side by side.
And even though there aren't tons of outstanding educational software available, there's enough good material (with more on the way, let's hope) to offer a child some remarkable opportunities -- if you recognize that even the most powerful PC can only reinforce whatever commitment to learning already exists in the home. Kids are initially fascinated by computers and the best machines and software reward this interest by giving children something few adults grant them: Control over a machine with a virtual guarantee of success.
Given the right software, a child can produce original greeting cards, posters, newspapers, music and complicated paper toys; use simulations to fly (and crash) planes; learn the night sky; play the stock market; fight battles or avoid nuclear war; solve mysteries; learn to type and play games. Best of all, I think, is what happens when a child is introduced to word processing. Even if he or she only hunts and pecks, the chance to make words and sentences dance on the screen is intoxicating and habit-forming for many children.
Little kids whose penmanship rivals chicken scratches will return to the computer again and again to laboriously tap out words just for the joy of it -- everything from letters and poems to stories and inspired silliness. Yes, kids can do this with pen and paper or a typewriter but it's not really the same experience.
Only the computer and word processing software lets them create and revise simultaneously, fiddle with words endlessly (the computer never tires, never criticizes, never causes writer's cramp) and then see that work quickly printed out. Only the computer lets us write as we think -- non-lineally and spontaneously. Giving a child access to that kind of constructive power is a precious gift, a combination of education and entertainment available only in the past decade.
But as I said at the beginning, given the relatively high cost of a good system and a useful software base, buying a home computer remains a definite maybe for most parents. No, if you're buying it out of fear or because you think it's an educational magic bullet. Yes, if you have another regular use for the computer -- such as word processing or document preparation -- and if you're willing to play with it and use it yourself, overseeing your child's exploration of a potentially wonderful toolbox. ::
Vic Sussman writes the personal technology column for The Washington Post Magazine.